After the frustrating push-pull of “Creed II” (2018), in which Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed engaged in a stealth battle with Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa over dominance of a popular movie franchise, “Creed III” marks a step up.
This is the ninth installment in that franchise. Stallone’s out this time. Jonathan Majors is in, and it’s a fine trade, dramatically speaking.
Right now in theaters Majors can be found struggling with some pretty sludgy material inside green screen purgatory in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” In “Creed III,” by contrast, the actor has somewhere to go with his character’s anguished grudge match, in and out of the ring. The movie is far from perfect; the flashbacks to the main characters’ shared childhood trauma drip-drip-drip the details in ways that can get a little frustrating. But Jordan and Majors are the glue, and we stick with them.
Last we saw Creed, he had vanquished the son of Drago, the man who killed his father, Apollo, in the ring back in ‘85 in “Rocky IV.” At the start of “Creed III,” all is roses and contentment with retired champ Adonis. He’s living in luxe Hollywood hills serenity — all glass, no stress — with his superstar musician wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson, sidelined here — always a mistake to sideline Tessa Thompson) and their pugilistically-inclined preteen daughter, Amara (Mila Davis-Kent). Still, there are threats to the family’s happiness, as we learn in dramatic foreshadowing that’s more like five- or six-shadowing, in scenes featuring the Creed who raised Adonis, wise and fierce and loving Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad).
These early scenes establish what Adonis will be fighting for in the screenplay by Keenan Coogler (brother of Ryan Coogler, who directed the excellent first “Creed”) and “King Richard” scribe Zach Baylin. The primary conflict emerges when Adonis’ childhood friend, Damian, shows up outside Adonis’ gym after an 18-year prison sentence for murder.
His own boxing dreams crushed, at least until now, Damian wants Adonis to train him fast, and hard. He’s owed that much, he says, for reasons we learn in short order. Their wary, shrewdly acted reunion scene, set in a diner, reassures the audience even as it unsettles Adonis: As long as Jordan and Majors are sussing each other out, in various forms of battle, “Creed III” will do the job.
What happened all those years ago? The script leaks the information at strategic junctures. “Livin’ that high life, huh?” Majors says to Jordan early on, with barely hidden envy and a hint of melancholy. Majors is one of those actors who won’t settle for one simple emotion or motivation when two or three can make a potentially one-dimensional adversary so much richer.
The boxing movie genre is nothing, really, without the idea of fighters fighting against themselves, and their demons. The three bouts in “Creed III” begin with Adonis vs. “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) in Cape Town, South Africa. Then comes the Los Angeles Crypto.com Arena match between the newcomer, Damian, and world champ Felix Chavez (José Benavidez Jr.), a bruising smackdown Damian fights with survival-at-any-costs moves he learned in prison the hard way.
This paves the way for what we came to see: the Dodger Stadium finale, pitting retired champ against unlikely new phenom, Jordan vs. Majors. The matches are filmed in tall-screen IMAX 1.90:1 format, reverting back to 2.39:1 aspect ratio for everything else. (The cinematographer, heavy into saturated color schemes and otherworldly intensity, is Kramer Morgenthau, who worked on “Creed II.”)
In interviews, Jordan has acknowledged Japanese anime as a key inspiration for “Creed III.” Close-ups of Adonis at one point transition into the realm of the fantastical: Suddenly the stadium is empty, and it’s just one man and his thoughts, his headspace. Do these visualizations work? Well, sort of? Not entirely? But unlike “Creed II,” which had little visual distinction and a storyline forgettable enough to send me straight to Wikipedia for a refresher, “Creed III” tries a few things. And it showcases two charismatic stars who are also genuine, ambitious actors.
I don’t know if the movie solves the queasiness at its core. Maybe it’s just my own, regarding a scenario in which Adonis is the guy with everything, the one we’re supposed to root for, up against Damian, the unblessed one with nothing but bad memories and an emotional debt he’s trying to collect with his fists. But that’s how it is, with boxing films and a lot more. Stories about unknowns on the way up are easy. Stories about legends trying to find the sleeping warrior within are harder.
“Creed III” — 3 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: PG-13 (for intense sports action, violence and some strong language)
Running time: 1:56
How to watch: Premieres in theaters March 2
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.